Clinton’s Team Is Hobbled by Carter’s Ghosts : The pretense of toughness on every foreign flare-up detracts from the domestic agenda.


No one expected that the Clinton Administration’s main strength would lie in foreign policy, but people did at least look for competence. The debacle of Warren Christopher’s trip to Beijing stripped away that tenuous hope. Russia, China, Europe, Japan--not one of these key relationships can be said to be solidly grounded, to say nothing of countries such as Iran with which the United States seems actively to be seeking confrontation.

Why pick so many quarrels? Is the rest of the world really so antithetical to American values and aims?

Many answers suggest themselves--the President’s own inexperience, some ill-advised campaign promises, the Democrats’ long exile from the White House and so on--but perhaps the fundamental flaw lies in the fact that too many members of the Clinton foreign-affairs team are fighting against imaginary ghosts from the Carter era rather than bringing the courage of their convictions to today’s challenges.

The first symptoms appeared early. In May, 1993, Peter Tarnoff, the No. 3 official at the State Department, mused in an off-the-record discussion with foreign editors that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the time had come to review American foreign-policy obligations in accordance with the new world circumstances. This unexceptional view corresponded perfectly with what candidate Clinton had been saying during the campaign about the primacy of domestic renewal; more important, it precisely caught the mood of the American people as demonstrated by their repudiation of George Bush for spending too much time on matters foreign.


At this juncture, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made a critical error. He could have taken the opportunity to guide the foreign-policy debate away from the global activism of the Cold War and toward the more selective involvement overseas that was clearly favored by broad public opinion. Instead, he yielded to short-term political calculations. Fearing that the Republicans would revive accusations of Carter-like weakness and that allies would raise accusations of isolationism, he repudiated Tarnoff with a passionate assertion of American leadership and engagement in world affairs.

Christopher’s rhetoric earned the plaudits of the foreign-policy community, both here and abroad; conventional opinion decreed that Tarnoff had erred and that Christopher had rightly stomped on him. Today it is becoming apparent that Christopher’s rhetorical commitment is at the heart of the Administration’s current foreign-policy travails.

Instead of fashioning a truly post-Cold War policy around a new and sustainable popular consensus, Christopher launched a series of policy postures that owed more to fear of the Democrats’ domestic opponents and foreign criticism than to the merits of individual cases. On issue after issue--China and human rights, Serbia and ethnic cleansing, Russia and its “near abroad,” North Korea and the bomb, Japan and trade--the Administration has sought to protect its flank against possible Republican attack by proclaiming its toughness from the rooftops, regardless of whether the issue warranted confrontational language or whether American public opinion was ready to support these belligerent stands with resources and lives.

Time and time again, this toughness has been exposed as no more than a rhetorical device. Too often the result has been a humiliating climb down, leaving the Administration in the exact position of weakness it was trying to avoid. Malaise, Jimmy Carter’s own word that came to characterize his term of office, may soon be on the tongues of Bill Clinton’s critics.

The way out is for the Administration to admit its mistake and rediscover its roots. It got it right the first time, understanding that the public expects a robust defense of direct American interests, particularly in the trade area, but otherwise has no appetite for overambitious adventures.

At his inauguration, Clinton was well aligned with the popular yearning for a moderate rather than frenetic foreign policy. Because of his inexperience, he placed himself in the hands of advisers who, running scared of the past, have adopted a thin bravado of so-called tough policies. (Christopher, we recall, was Carter’s special envoy who brokered the release of the U.S. hostages in Iran just in time for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.) A much better approach would be for Clinton to reclaim his bond with what ordinary Americans want. If the Republicans wish to wrap themselves in the mantle of global cop, so be it. They will be risking further electoral repudiation, and that should not cause Clinton or Christopher to lose a moment’s sleep.